California's Dennis Cyrus Trial and the Role of the Prosecutor in a Death Penalty Case

On Tuesday, our post focused upon the pending Dennis Cyrus case in California, and how this case may be the first time in over half a century that a defendant setting in a San Francisco court actually faces capital punishment for a crime.

Looking at the case from another angle, there are several key examples of how the prosecutor works in a death penalty case. First, there's the consideration of the head prosecutor for that jurisdiction.

Federal Prosecutors

Federal prosecutors pursue matters in federal criminal courts under the auspices of the region's U.S. Attorney, who in turn is an employee of the Department of Justice. U.S. Attorneys are appointed to their positions.

As a part of the executive branch, federal prosecutors have guidelines to follow in capital punishment matters. In the Cyrus case, the example is shown of the Bush Administration's established policy that there be uniformity among all U.S. Attorneys in their decisions to seek the death penalty. While the particular federal prosecutor does have some autonomy to try his or her case, there are boundaries within which that case must be pursued and tried - and those boundaries are marked by the President of the United States.

State Prosecutors

State prosecutors pursue matters in state criminal courts under the direction of the local District Attorney. Usually, these are county officials who have been elected for a specific term. They may have been prosecutors for many years, some may have served time on a criminal bench as judge before running for election.

District Attorneys have assistants that try the criminal cases in their region; however, there are occasions when the elected head honcho will actually try a case. It all depends. Think Law & Order, and how those characters operate: the Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) are in the courtroom, the District Attorney is overseeing things from a booklined office.

The Big Difference in the Cyrus Case

In the Cyrus case, the example is given of two District Attorneys for the Bay Area who each decided that during their elected terms, the District Attorney's Office would not seek the death penalty in any case. This was their option, because they could set this boundary for their region, even if capital punishment was a legal option under California law.

In Cyrus, you can see the role of the prosecutor in action. If Cyrus had been tried for state crimes under state law, the District Attorney would have followed their policy and not sought the death penalty. However, since Cyrus was being tried for federal crimes under federal law, the U.S. Attorney followed the established policy of the Department of Justice and sought the death penalty in his case.

And, the physical distance between these two courtrooms? 1.5 miles

The Hall of Justice (state courtroom) is located at 405 Golden Gate Avenue, which is only 1.5 miles from the District Court for the Northern District of California (federal courtroom), found at 850 Bryant Street (according to Google Maps).

 
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